Management by consensus – the Swedish way

Swedish managers are typically supposed to be consensual, non-hierarchical and informal. How far does the stereotype match reality, asks Olle Wästberg, director-general of the Swedish Institute.

Management by consensus – the Swedish way

Is there such a thing as a “Swedish management style”?

Well, maybe. I know Americans who have been in meetings with Swedes, where a subject is discussed for an hour or so, and then the Swedish chair concludes: “Well, we all agree. So, just do it!”

“Do, what?” the American thinks, not grasping the subtle Swedish consensus building. The non-Swede finds no decision taken and doesn’t understand that Swedes have a light touch on expressing decisions.

As all statements of national traits, this description is of course an oversimplification. But still, there are many things about Swedish business culture that to the uninitiated might be unintelligible.

Swedish companies usually have flat, non-hierarchical organizations with more of informal decision-making compared with companies in other countries. Compared with American or Russian companies Swedes make less of statistics and reporting.

That doesn’t mean that the Swedish process includes less planning or that there are fewer meetings in Swedish companies. On the contrary.

An American friend with experience of Swedish as well as American companies described the difference in management style as follows:

– If an American group sets out to build a railroad, they try to find the best engineer, the best contractors, decide from where to where the railroad should go, build the team and set off. When they meet an obstacle on the way, they try to solve it as they go.

– Swedes would spend an extra year on planning and mapping, thinking of what could become a problem during the project and add the required manpower successively. When they run into problems, they have probably anticipated them.

Both teams will reach their destination at the same time, but in different ways.

When I once said to an American friend that I as a Swede didn’t have a lawyer and hadn’t talked to a lawyer for years, he was flabbergasted: “I call my lawyer first thing in the morning.”

That might not go for every American, but law certainly plays a much less prominent role in a traditionally homogeneous country like Sweden. Swedish business contracts are usually much shorter than in many other countries – probably because the level of trust still is higher and there is a mutual understanding of standard business practice.

Young Swedes employed by foreign companies or international organizations often run into trouble being too informal or too disrespectful of structures. In a Swedish ministry, for example, it is quite natural for a newly employed, young person to stop the minister in the corridor and launch a fast idea. Wouldn’t happen in Paris.

When non-Swedes experience a Swedish company or organisation from inside, they seem to think that there really is a “Swedish management style.”

In 2008 the Swedish Institute started the first in a series of management programmes, aiming to build networks between Sweden and other countries. The participants in this first programme were emerging leaders from Northern Europe, both new EU countries and EU neighbours.

By bringing young leaders, mostly from business – but sometimes government – to Sweden, we create lasting bonds between our country and people who are likely to play an important role in their home countries. They are invited to Sweden, get a crash course in what Sweden is all about, meet with Swedish counterparts and work for a couple of weeks on business projects at Swedish companies.

The programme is not at all about promoting a special leadership style, but rather about promoting value-based leadership. The central values are not specifically Swedish, but play an important role in Sweden: corporate social responsibility, sustainability and the environment.

Through this programme, young leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have got the chance to spend some time in Sweden. In 2009 a new management programme with roughly the same aim and direction is being launched for China and India.

When we talked to the first group of participants, they were quite unanimous in recognising a “Swedish leadership style” characterized by easy communication, low internal competition and anti-hierarchical organization structures.

So, maybe it is not a myth after all.

Olle Wästberg, Director-General of the Swedish Institute


‘Stockholm has to fix its housing problem’

With the clock ticking on the lease for her current home in Stockholm, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on how Sweden needs to improve the housing situation for visiting students, researchers and other skilled workers.

'Stockholm has to fix its housing problem'

I read a recent piece in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (also run on The Local) arguing that the government bureaucracy plays a large role in discouraging foreign talent from moving to Sweden.

In this article, the Swedish Institute (SI) argues that students, researchers and other skilled workers are an important part of Sweden’s economy, innovation and future; however, they are being held up by the bureaucracy of visas, taxes and rules.

While bureaucracy is no doubt a significant hurdle, I can think of another problem here in Stockholm that causes frustration and panic once these foreigners cut through the red tape: housing.

The student housing crisis in Stockholm has made the news quite a lot lately, but the incredibly tight rental market reaches farther than just students. All of these visiting researchers and workers Sweden wants to attract also have to find rentals as they settle in.

So what does it take to rent a place in this city? I can tell you it takes more than time and patience. These past two months, we got our own taste of the housing shortage.


Two years ago we arrived in Sweden assuming we’d just rent a place for a few years before made our Big Decision. Actually, we didn’t have that much of a choice— without a few Swedish tax years under our belt, the banks we checked with were reluctant to loan us anything near what we’d need to buy something in Stockholm.

We just didn’t think renting in Stockholm would be dramatically harder than in other cities around the world.

We had been warned by other expats that the rental market would be tough, and it was. We signed up for a couple of the housing queues when we first arrived and still haven’t heard back.

But since we were open to living anywhere in the Stockholm area, we eventually found a house in a great little neighborhood and settled in.


Just how lucky we were became much clearer when, this summer, just after signing onto another year in the house (and right in the middle of our vacation), we got an email: the family we are renting from wanted their house back.

Their overseas plans had fallen through, and they were coming back to Sweden. Now. How soon could we be out?

When we looked for housing two years ago, we were open to just about any neighborhood within a reasonable commuting distance to work. But now our family has settled in to this community. We have a school, daycare, friends and neighbours that we want to stay reasonably close to.

And to make the house hunt even more exciting, our move-out date is rapidly approaching. I love the fact that summer in Sweden is truly vacation time —generally speaking, things shut down, and many people get time off work. But this made finding a new place to live next to impossible.

After two months of replying to listings on Swedish buy-sell site Blocket and other rental sites, we have gotten only a handful of responses. One was from the owner of an absurdly expensive townhouse unable to get his asking price but unwilling to go down. Another response looked like this:

“I’ll only be in town for one day, so I want to make sure you’re serious about the place. If you want me to hold it for you, immediately deposit 7,500 kronor ($1,150) into my account.”

Hmm…We’re not that desperate. Yet.

I’ve heard friends blame the tight rental market on many things, including rent control, environmental concerns, geography and politics. But one thing they all agree on is this: the problem has been around for as long as they can remember. And it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Now, with the clock ticking on our current house and no prospects in sight, we’re suddenly faced with our Big Decision earlier than we were ready for: do we buy something here in Stockholm, or do we move back to California? Do we dare enter the notoriously difficult buyers’ market? I’m not even sure it’s possible to buy before our move-out date.

Every immigrant family we know has struggled with this same issue. If Stockholm wants to encourage the influx of visiting professors, students, researchers, and colleagues, these need a place to live.

Sorting out Stockholm’s housing problem is just as important as addressing the bureaucracy that the Swedish Institute criticizes.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.